How does culture influence mental health?

Jun 2, 2022 | 2 comments

One of my favorite Scriptures is in the early verses of Philippians 4. In 9 short verses, Paul deals with a series of related topics: harmony among coworkers, resolving anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving, nurturing peace, and deliberately focusing our minds on what is good and noble and pure. 

Global Trellis has been looking at mental health for intercultural workers recently. These verses in Philippians speak loudly about how our habits of thought and relationship relate to habits of mental health.

Here is a question: in what ways might culture and cultural patterns affect these mental health habits? 

I want to be careful to say at the outset that my expertise is in cultural studies, not in counseling. I won’t try to speak to the issues better treated by mental health professionals. But saying that, I can tell you confidently that there are cultural variations across the topics that Paul introduces in Philippians 4!

Harmony between coworkers

“Why did that young man put his hands on my head that way! He insulted and degraded me! I am his elder by decades. He has dishonored me! I expect to be treated with the respect of my age!”

“I was just having a little fun! Joking and lighthearted humor is part of all my daily relationships! I expected him to laugh at my little prank. Why is he so upset? Can’t he take a joke?”

Did you notice the word expectations? So much of our interaction across cultures has to do with the expectations of what makes for a good relationship. I love how Paul’s instructions do not tell us to live with a certain level of formal or informal interactions. He calls us to peace.

But what one people expect of a peaceful relationship might be quite different than what another group expects.

Just sharing a biblical goal of living in harmony doesn’t necessarily make our relationships peaceful. Our expectations of what is appropriate might be at the root of the issue and we don’t even realize it!  

A hugely powerful tool exists that can help to resolve these different expectations: talk about them. A conversation that both speaks and listens to each other’s expectation can diffuse so many tensions! I’ll admit, it might take some time to figure out what exactly is at the root of a strained relationship, but my experience is that very often it will come down to differing expectations. Putting those expectations on the table and talking about them can go so very far in bringing harmony to our relationships.

Putting aside our anxiety

A few decades ago, a popular US folk singer sang about a high-strung businessman and the calmer street sweeper in his town. “Its my job to be worried half-to-death” says the business owner. “Its my job to be cleaning up this mess” says the lighthearted worker (Jimmy Buffet, “Its My Job”).

The cultures we live in and the roles we have so often “tell us” what to be anxious about. What keeps you up at night? Are you worried half-to-death about bills and finances? Other people grow anxious about relationships or their children or the neighborhood gossip. Grades? The life patterns of your children? The business performance and upcoming Board of Directors’ meeting? What gives you anxious thoughts and worries?

From culture to culture and even in our roles within the same culture, our anxieties grow so often from the expectations that we have for ourselves, or that others have for us. 

There is that word again, “expectations”! In our Philippians passage, Paul gives us a beautiful antidote to anxieties: prayer and thanksgiving. You have one set of realities; the culture you are in (or your own inner mind!) set up another set of expectations. How to respond when those just don’t line up? I don’t want to oversimplify, but even when the expectations involve different cultural perspectives on what “ought to be,” one main key to setting aside the anxiety is found in a God who answers prayer, and who rejoices when His children are thankful! Ask Him!  He can bring clarity to all of the confusing expectations and He can lead us to resolve the stresses that keep us awake at night.

Deliberate focus of our thoughts

Paul tells us to focus our thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good reputation, excellent and praiseworthy. This is in the same context as his calls to peace and being “anxious for nothing.” Are these things the same across cultures? And are there cultural patterns that might nurture or threaten the kind of thought life that God calls us to?

I am writing this post from an East African nation where I am ministering for a couple of weeks. In the evening, there are times when I enjoy relaxing with a bit of television or a movie, but in this place the movies I find on my hotel television are so. . . .  well, to me they are boring! I can find music channels and news recaps and sports. At home I’d look for an action film or a murder mystery.

Hmmm. So what am I focusing my thoughts on at home anyway? A story about murder or a violent attack? Even if the good guys win in the end – am I putting my mind on the honorable and true and praiseworthy? Or could my culture’s love of action movies push against the direction God says we ought to direct our thoughts?

I am suddenly glad for a boring selection of television! Maybe one result of the cross-cultural difference in television options is that I find different ways to spend my evenings when I get home. . .  and a habit of thought that pulls me more deeply toward the God of peace.

If you have lived in a culture different than your own, you have experienced how those differences speak to issues in mental health.

As you bridge from the expectations and thought processes and worrisome issues in your home culture and into the expectations and thoughts and worries that are hallmarks of your host culture, may the God of peace guide you to healing conversations, to expectations that line up with His Word, and with a mental pathway that nurtures peace and truth.


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Photo by Haseeb Jamil on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of CultureBound. Husband. Life-long learner.

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2 Comments

  1. Mark M

    Great article, Mark. Simply stated, yet much profound thought here!

    Reply
  2. Spring

    Interesting to think about. In our host country of Poland, people were good at taking long strolls through the forest or around the neighborhood. When a certain teen neighbor would pop by and ask if I wanted to take a stroll, at first I was struck by the dullness of the idea. Just a stroll? No where to go? We didn’t even have enough language to have a real conversation… just a walk. peaceful. quiet. gentle…. 20 years later, i look back on those days and am so proud of the Polish people. They often choose to do things that are good for the body, gentle, and refreshing. So not wild and crazy, but GOOD. That was different than teens in the States. There was SOOOO much to learn from that culture.

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